PRETORIA — The disorderly behaviour by members of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) at the Durban memorial service for Ahmed Kathrada on Sunday afternoon is a worrying glimpse into the future as President Jacob Zuma struggles to hold on to power.
The addresses of former Finance minister Pravin Gordhan and ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize were disrupted by ANCYL members singing and chanting in praise of Zuma.
The president and his supporters are meanwhile offering alternative explanations and justifications for his actions and the economic crisis South Africa is immersed in.
This is South Africa’s very own post-truth politics.
In an article in Business Day last week, ANC national executive committee member, and arguably one of its best strategists, Joel Netshitenzhe assessed the crisis prompted by Zuma’s Cabinet reshuffle and the ANC’s possible responses to it:
“While recognising that mistakes may be made from time to time, the ANC should be able to assess whether such failures are a consequence of poor implementation, inappropriate policies or leadership weaknesses. This should then guide the action it takes,” Netshitenzhe wrote.
On the disagreement between Zuma and three of the ANC’s top six officials, Cyril Ramaphosa, Gwede Mantashe and Mkhize, over the Cabinet changes, Netshitenzhe said it was the President who “defied the will of the majority at that meeting, falling back on his constitutional prerogative as head of state and government”.
“And so, we are left to wonder, on whose head does the cap of ill-discipline fit?” he asked.
“What this demonstrates is a growing divergence of interests and approaches of an individual from those of the ANC.”
There are a lot of blurred lines when it comes to the interests of the ANC and Zuma — the interests of the country often do not feature at all.
The Nkandla fiasco clearly demonstrated this when the ANC rallied to defend and protect Zuma, subjecting the organisation to severe reputational damage, only for the president to do an about-turn at the Constitutional Court and agree to pay back the money for the non-security upgrades at his home.
Yet some ANC leaders refuse to separate what Zuma does from the organisation, chaining the two together so that the ANC in its entirety is forced to stand by him, irrespective of what he does.
Former President Kgalema Motlanthe made this same point last week when he said some ANC members use Zuma as a “metonym” for the organisation.
“When you speak about the ANC critically, they say it’s an attack on the president. When he commits errors, their response is that they must defend the ANC,” he said.
The public outrage at Zuma’s late night Cabinet reshuffle, particularly his firing of Gordhan and his former deputy Mcebisi Jonas, is being projected by the president’s supporters as an attack on the ANC.
Several ministers in Zuma’s Cabinet, including Nomvula Mokonyane, David Mahlobo and Lindiwe Zulu, have argued in the last week that the President cannot be questioned on his decisions to make changes to the executive because of the powers granted to him by the Constitution.
In the wake of nationwide protests against Zuma on Friday, the argument from people in the Zuma camp appears to be that if there is criticism of the president, only ANC members are entitled express these, and only within the confines and secrecy of ANC meetings.
Anything outside this requires the ANC to fight back.
Speaking at an ANC media briefing on Sunday, Zulu said: “The president is the president of the African National Congress.
He is the president of the country and we will continue to defend the president as members of African National Congress‚ as long as he is a member of [the ANC]‚” Zulu said.
It seems that this defence has no limits, and requires that ANC members protect the president even if his actions are illogical.
Zuma’s initial reason for firing Gordhan and Jonas was the dubious “intelligence report” alleging their were plotting against the country.
When it became clear that the report was fake, the reason became that Zuma wanted to introduce younger people into the Cabinet.
Then the narrative was that there was an “irretrievable breakdown” in the relationship between Zuma and Gordhan.
At a media briefing last week, Mantashe suggested that a newspaper headline saying “President Gordhan” had “made life difficult” for the former minister.
Although none of these reasons justify Zuma’s reckless decision to fire Gordhan and Jonas and provoke ratings downgrades to junk status by S&P and Fitch, his allies in the ANC believe that nobody ought to call the president into question.
But the funeral and memorial services for freedom fighter Ahmed Kathrada have shattered conspiracy of silence in the ANC and the alliance.
Speeches at the events, by among others Motlanthe, Gordhan, Kathrada’s widow Barbara Hogan, South African Communist Party leaders Solly Mapaila and Jeremy Cronin lashed Zuma directly or indirectly.
The memorials saw high emotions and a rise of negative sentiment against the President.
Gordhan, as predicted, has become one of the faces of the resistance and has transformed from the tightly-wound guardian of the nation’s finances to a folk hero.
While Zuma has not commented on the mass protests against him, he hit out at the use of funerals and memorials to attack people.
Speaking at the tombstone unveiling of the former minister Collins Chabane in Limpopo on Saturday, Zuma said this was “terrible and dangerous” politics.
“There is a new culture that we must persuade one another not to do . . . to use a funeral and a memorial to fight our political battles. It is wrong. It will never be right‚ no matter how you feel. You can’t use a comrade when he can no longer talk for himself,” Zuma said.
This “new culture” Zuma speaks of was actually common practice during the 1980s and early 1990s when political funerals were the only public platforms to speak truth to power.
Funerals and memorial services were essential platforms to fight the biggest political battle of the time — the struggle against apartheid.
Zuma has also conveniently chosen to disregard the fact that Kathrada himself was critical of him and makes as if those who spoke at his funeral and memorial services were misrepresenting the veteran leader.
But this argument gave his supporters in the ANCYL in KwaZulu-Natal a prop to use at Kathrada’s Durban memorial service on Sunday.
Gordhan was billed to speak at the event, which gave the president’s die-hard supporters the opportunity to confront the person who is currently the lightning rod for the anti-Zuma campaign.
It was clear that the event could descend into chaos and a court interdict was issued on Saturday to prevent the ANCYL from assaulting, intimidating or harassing anyone at the memorial.
Despite pleas from ANC KwaZulu-Natal chairperson Sihle Zikalala and ANCYL provincial secretary Thanduxolo Sabelo for their members to be disciplined and not interrupt the speakers, the memorial service was marred by intermittent booing, heckling and singing in praise of Zuma.
Sabelo and Zikalala launched a spirited defence of Zuma, with the ANCYL leader saying they were at the memorial service to mourn on behalf of Zuma because he had been barred from doing so.
Zikalala argued the same point Zuma did, that funerals and memorial services should not be used to criticise those with divergent views, saying this was “inhumane” and “against the culture of ubuntu”.
Despite the bullying from the crowd, director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Neeshan Balton, emphasised that Kathrada was “disturbed about the situation in the country”.
Gordhan used the platform to denounce false unity in the ANC based on money being used to influence and buy off people.
There were howls from the crowd when he spoke out against corruption eroding the economy.
A startling development was the booing and drowning out of Mkhize, who made an unexpected appearance at the event.
Mkhize tried to make closing comments but was inaudible due to loud singing from people in the crowd wearing ANC T-shirts.
On Sunday night, Mkhize issued a statement saying the heckling was unacceptable and erodes respect for the ANC.
“It is clear that the ANC leadership has a huge task to embark on political education to teach our youth tolerance of different views and respect for the memory of those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom,” Mkhize said.
“On behalf of the ANC we wish to apologise to those who were invited, for the embarrassment and inconvenience caused.”
But the behaviour at Sunday’s memorial service is clearly the just the beginning of the use of intimidation and possibly violence to beat Zuma’s opponents into submission.
There is information constantly emerging about Members of Parliament from the ANC and opposition parties being intimidated and receiving death threats ahead of next Tuesday’s motion of no confidence in the president.
Not even the country’s dire economic situation can serve as a wake-up call for the Zuma camp.
The Sunday Times reported that Zuma’s inner circle mocked South Africa’s rating downgrade to junk, with several of his allies laughing it off as a joke on a WhatsApp discussion group.
Mokonyane, one of Zuma’s most ardent defenders, told the chat group: “It’s actually better Western investors will pull back and we have an opportunity to bring them back in our own terms, after we have consolidated our relations with Africa and Brics [five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa]. We must rearrange our foreign debt repayments.”
She confirmed to the paper that she had written the post.
With the resort to bullying, a distorted sense of reality and possibly violence, it is not possible to have intelligent or rational discourse on matters of national importance.
In the ANC, Zuma is being defended through a barrage of “alternative facts” and thuggish behaviour, while the state security apparatus barricades him physically from those he is meant to serve.
In Netshitenzhe’s article, he challenges the notion of “unity at any cost”.
“It cannot be unity of the kind where, in a family, a thief or a murderer is caught in the act, and the relatives elect to keep quiet for the sake of family unity. That, in simple terms, constitutes complicity and is itself a crime.
“Unity in the ANC should be based on principle and it should be in pursuit of the strategies, policies and programmes of the organisation. Violation of what the ANC stands for, by any member at any level, should be combated. That cannot be interpreted as sowing disunity.”
But the ANC continues to devour itself because too many of its leaders and members refuse to see this.
Either through their own self-interest or by conflating the ANC and Zuma into a singular organism, they believe the president should be shielded no matter what he does.
This sets Zuma and his supporters on a collision course with all those in society who believe that the president should be held accountable for his actions and that the rule of law should prevail.